On the screen is one of the most iconic photographs of all time — a naked John Lennon clings foetus-like to Yoko Ono. This photograph, which first appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine after Lennon’s death, was conceptualised and shot by portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz. The voiceover tells us the back-story. “My initial idea was to have them both naked,” says Leibovitz’s deep voice. Lennon was game, quickly shedding his clothes, but Ono was uncomfortable.
Leibovitz’s iconic photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono was shot hours before he was killed and made it to the cover of Rolling Stone.
“So I told her, fine, keep everything on,” continues the voice. “We took one Polaroid, and we knew it was profound right away.” Hours later, Lennon was shot and killed by a deranged fan outside his Manhattan apartment.
We know Leibovitz as the recorder of celebrity persona — a point which the documentary, Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens, makes by jumping frequently back to a photo shoot with Hollywood actress Kirsten Dunst. An actress with sporadic critical success, you see Dunst drowning in a heavy gown emerging from a horse-drawn carriage, sweeping her way across a chequered marble floor, and looking coyly into the eyes of her male co-star. “Annie’s photos got more and more elaborate,” says a Vanity Fair editor, looking both infuriated and amused.
“I want a horse, a plane, a fully-grown tiger, it got outrageous. But she got whatever she wanted, because the photos always delivered.” This statement is followed by a sequence showing entire Penn State University marching band assembling in the middle of a desolate-looking field, as Leibovitz barks orders at them.
Leibovitz is the world’s most well-known modern photographer who singlehandedly sculpted the public perceptions of the world’s biggest celebrities. But it is hard to definitively say whether Leibovitz began recording history before she became a part of it, or the other way round.
Leibovitz maintains that the only way to photograph someone with any degree of authenticity is to understand their life, and what makes them “click” (a pun which reduces the photographer to hysterical giggles).
When she joined Rolling Stone magazine as a young woman — providing photos for the writings of Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe — she followed The Rolling Stones for weeks to fully integrate with them. “Annie was like, you never knew she was there,” says a bemused Mick Jagger. He is shown photo after photo — his top-half hanging listlessly out of a hotel room, supine on a stage during rehearsal — and can’t remember any of them being taken. “She would just become one of the guys,” he says, shaking his head. “Whatever you can imagine happening during a Rolling Stones tour, I did that,” remembers Leibovitz. Her career at Rolling Stone ended with a stint in rehab.
The documentary is directed by Leibovitz’s younger sister and follows the photographer’s career into Vanity Fair. Endless snapshots of the most iconic celebrity photographs of our time — a heavily-pregnant and naked Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg emerging out of a tub of milk, and Donald and Melanie Trump posing in front of their private jet — are rushed through in a way that doesn’t lessen their impact. The photos drive home the prolific quality of Leibovitz’s career as well as the narrative quality of her portraits. Whoopi was the first African-American actress to achieve the kind of mainstream success that she did, and Leibovitz says, “I wanted to make the point that here was an actress emerging from what had always been totally white.”
Perhaps the best part of the documentary is when Leibovitz remembers her childhood. “We were a traveling family,” she reminisces. “I saw life through a car window, which was a ready-made camera frame for me. Maybe that’s where it all started.”
Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens was shown at Good Earth as a part of Focus Festival, Mumbai’s first photography festival, that’s on till Wednesday. Find more events at www.focusfestivalmumbai.com.